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Microfinance challenges: empowerment or disempowerment of the poor?

 | 
Isabelle Guérin
, 
Jane Palier

Part I - Questions as to definition: what is understood by empowerment?

Introduction

Defining the concept of empowerment through experiences in India

Jane Palier

Texte intégral

  • 42 There is no direct translation of the term “empowerment” in the French or German languages, althoug (...)
  • 43 Government of India, National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, 2001. The Indian government, mor (...)

1The term empowerment42 has been widely employed for over a decade, both in the discourse of international organizations and by politicians and actors in the field, notably by those promoting microfinance schemes throughout the world. Generally speaking, empowerment refers to greater access to power by underprivileged or vulnerable segments of the population. In India, therefore, this includes the poor, women, and also the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). In its initial judicial meaning (Oxford Dictionary), to empower is to give somebody the power or authority to do something. Here however, we are discussing the concept of empowerment in reference to its second meaning, i.e. to give somebody more control over his/her own life or the situation he/she is in. In development discourse, this term is commonly used in reference to gender inequalities. The Government of India took this position when it declared 2001 as the year of the empowerment of women and undertook various measures towards achieving greater equality between men and women43.

2It is difficult to define this concept in a universal and unequivocal manner. Empowerment does not carry the same meaning, nor does it correspond to the same manifestations for everyone. Thus, the causal link between microfinance and empowerment that has been almost systematically established appears quite paradoxical. Whether one peruses the working documents of the World Bank or the activity reports of a small microfinance organization in India, this causality often appears to be self-evident and its very existence is scarcely doubted. As such, the questions being raised are usually focussed on the ways of optimizing empowerment by means of micro-finance. It is for this reason that we feel an inquiry into the definition and meanings attributed to the concept of empowerment is indispensable: to look more deeply into the meaning of the concept of empowerment necessarily leads to an examination of this causal link that is too often taken for granted. The issue here will therefore pertain more to the discourse held on this process of empowerment through microfinance as rather than an evaluation of the diverse effects resulting of microfinance practices (cf. Part 3). The following part will extend this discussion by showing the importance of considering the whole socio-economic context in which microfinance practices take place (cf. Part 2).

3In this introductory section, we shall begin by focusing on the dominant discourse of empowerment, that is, the discourse of international organizations and above all of the World Bank (1). Following this, emphasis will be placed on the ambiguity of the concept of empowerment: is it a question of a neutral or conflictual process; an economic or socio-political process; or, an individual or collective process? (2).

  • 44 Besides, in 1989, empowerment had been elected as the “management concept of the year” (Michailova (...)
  • 45 The text by I. W. Suadnya et al. in this part reviews different definitions of empowerment borrowed (...)

4Before treading further into this discourse of development, it is perhaps useful to call to mind that, well beyond the developing world, management theories44 are one of the fields in which the term empowerment has been commonly used for a long time. In fact, in managerial language, empowerment refers to a process of delegating responsibilities and imparting autonomy to employees in an enterprise. The introduction of this process aims at optimizing the efficiency of the workplace. This is accomplished, by freeing employees from supervision in order to generate greater interest in their work through encouraging greater responsibility and initiatives that come from the bottom, thereby allowing an increase in workload45.

5For our part, we take the definition given by Snejina Michailova (2002) as a basis: “Empowerment refers to the degree to which employees are encouraged to make certain decisions without consulting their superiors and to which organizational dynamics are initiated at the bottom. The notion is associated with delegating, or, more broadly, with enabling”. Michailova also underscores the fact that this concept has a Western origin and that the technical “recipes” which it entails are also Western, while the question of the imposition of cultural values on an organization does not really arise. The universality of the concept of empowerment is also criticized in the field of development in general, and in that of microfinance in particular. In the same way that some promoters of microfinance display naïveté when they posit a self-evident link between microfinance and empowerment, authors discussing organization at times appear to be astonishingly optimistic, providing simple recipes assumed to further this process with necessarily positive consequences. In both fields there is a desire to define good practices that, subsequent to validation, are easily replicable.

  • 46 See, for example, M. Das Gupta et al. (2000); J. Deshmukh-Ranadive (2002b); E. Hofman et al. (2001) (...)
  • 47 See, for example, D. M. Burjorjee et al. (2002).

6In the field of microfinance in Southern countries, the concept of empowerment is primarily focussed on women. We shall not mention here the numerous studies pertaining to the feminization of poverty46, but they should be kept in mind in order to understand why microfinance has been largely concentrated upon women. Moreover, a few weeks spent in India is suffice to convince one that the key word used by NGOs in the matter of microfinance is women’s empowerment, though unfortunately, without veritable gender strategies having been put in place (1.1). Also unfortunate is that the other categories of marginalized populations have received much less attention, in particular the Dalits and the Tribes. The case study described here, which focuses on a specific Tribe, − although it does not permit generalization–shows to which extent the adopted method is unsuited because it is fundamentally ethnocentric (1.2). Not only do actors in the field associate microfinance with women’s emancipation or power of participation, but international organizations and donor agencies promote it, establish good practices47 and orient their activities toward the establishment of good institutions, a necessary prerequisite for the process of empowerment that becomes inseparable from such concepts as “good governance” and “social capital” (1.3). We shall later have occasion to show that defining the process of empowerment implies taking a position between a neutral approach and a more political one of “social change” (2.1). This opposition gives rise to another: must empowerment be an individual or a collective process? While these two approaches are often presented as antinomic and characteristic of actual “schools of thought”, in practice it seems obvious that the articulation individual/collective – analogous to the linkage of the economic, social and political dimensions of the process – is the only means of promoting a process of empowerment worthy of the name (2.2).

1. Empowerment: key word in the discourse on development

1.1. Empowerment, synonymous with women emancipation?

  • 48 See a box concerning the four essential components of the paradigm of human development in which th (...)
  • 49 The economic analysis of inequalities gave rise to a renewed interest among economists in the 1990s (...)
  • 50 See the critical evaluation by J. Falquet (2003a; 2003b) on the used of gender indicators.
  • 51 The three indicators retained are the share of seats held by women in the parliamentary assemblies, (...)
  • 52 Ibid. p. 1001: the most significant examples are China with 21.8% and Cuba with 27.6% (2002 data).
  • 53 See notably M. Sekher (2001).
  • 54 Refer to the assessment made in Chapter 3, “Evaluation of women’s progress: linking objectives and (...)

7As with concepts such as good governance or participation, the use of the concept of empowerment by international organizations, can be seen to have emerged out of the evolving definitions and measurements of poverty and policies aimed at its reduction48. Since the 1990s, the discourse of international organizations has emphasized the fight against poverty rather than development strategies as such (Lautier 2002a; 2002b). In addition, the recognition of inequalities49 and gender discrimination has led the same organizations to establish indicators that take gender into account so as to refine the measurement of human development. The UNDP report of 1995 emphasized gender50 by introducing two new complementary indices: the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). Whereas the GDI employs the indicators that constitute the Human Development Index to measure the inequalities between men and women in terms of access to basic needs, the GEM evaluates women’s access to political and economic posts51. The UNDP, on the basis of the conceptual framework of Amartya Sen, establishes the following distinction concerning the range of the two indicators: “while the GDI focuses on the extension of capabilities, the GEM is concerned with the use of those capabilities to take advantage of the opportunities of life” (Human Development Report of the UNDP 1995: 73). The measurement of women’s political representation by these indices is always limited (Bardhan 1999). Notwithstanding a large proportion of elected women, a national parliament can only have few real powers52. The participation and involvement of women in local political institutions are not taken into consideration, and neither is their visibility within NGOs and other bodies of civil society. The example of India is significant: in 2000, the share of elected women in the two chambers of parliament was only 8.9%. The constitutional amendments of 1992 had, moreover, fixed a quota reserving one-third of the seats for women in the local political institutions (Panchayati Raj Institutions)53. Thus, even if the construction of these two indicators marks an advance in the consideration of gender inequalities54, political participation does not in itself suffice to define empowerment.

  • 55 According to a study conducted by the IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) among ap (...)
  • 56 See S. Cheston et al. (2002: 7-11).
  • 57 A good example is found in the formulation of Daniel Cohen: “The exploitation of women is not only (...)

8The interest shown in the gender dimension of poverty is not sufficient to explain the fact that a large number of microfinance schemes have chosen to target a female-only clientele55. There are other more or less explicit justifications56 enabling one to understand the fact that empowerment is often synonymous with women’s emancipation. The analytical microfinance, this distinction, which is rarely made57, makes it possible to classify the four principal series of arguments usually advanced. On the side of the substantial approach, one finds: the problem of the feminization of poverty (1) and the feminist argumentation (2). On the instrumental side, one finds the role of women in economic growth and development (3) and their respect of financial commitments, in other words, the fact that they would be “good” borrowers, disciplined and amenable as concerns their repayments (4). Let us view these four arguments successively.

  1. The phenomenon of the feminization of poverty: women are held to be among the poorest of the poor and above all the most vulnerable. They must therefore be helped as a priority, for they are the most underprivileged. The interviews we conducted with different promoters of microfinance schemes in India were along these lines. To the question: Why target these women?, many were surprised, as the response seemed to be self-evident. They then drew up a list of the forms of discrimination to which women are subjected.

  2. Women’s access to fundamental human rights: from a feminist point of view, financial services represent an opening/opportunity for greater empowerment. SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association – Ahmedabad), WWF (Working Women’s Forum – Chennai) or the FWWB (Friends of Women’s World Banking – India) explicitly put forward the use of microfinance to fight for the independence, autonomy and the rights of women.

    • 58 UN, The World’s Women 1995: Trends and Statistics, New York: United Nations. Cited by Z. Oxaal and (...)
    • 59 Numerous empirical studies have undertaken to show that women allocate a greater part of their inco (...)
    • 60 See the three paradigms of microfinance identified by L. Mayoux (1998b; 2000; 2003; 2004).
    • 61 “Women’s empowerment is commonly linked to other agendas which happen to take priority. As long as (...)

    Gender discrimination and inequalities impact the economic growth of a country. Women must be helped because of their contribution to development: investing in women’s capabilities and empowering them to exercise their choices is not only valuable in and of itself but it is also the surest way to contribute to economic growth and overall development58. Furthermore, women make greater use of their resources for the well-being of the family: expenditures for food, education and health59. Men, notably in India, are accused of squandering their income on non-productive consumption (alcohol, tobacco, gambling, etc.). To help women would thus have a multiplying effect on the whole family. From the point of view of the development of microfinance in order to combat poverty60, women are thus targeted because they count among the poorest and are responsible for the well-being of the household. Jacqueline Brown calls our attention to the fact that it is not always certain that an improvement in the living conditions of women would always be actively sought were others not also to benefit61.

    • 62 See the hidden reasons for the targeting of women by the Grameen Bank (Rahman 1999: 69-71). A consi (...)

    It is assumed that women are more cooperative and make a point of honouring and respecting their commitments and are thus better at repaying their debts. The objective of financial viability of the MFIs goes hand in hand with the valorization of empowerment of the economic type that involves the broadening of possibilities of individual choice and a greater financial independence. To strive for financial viability leads one to target women as the most reliable borrowers62.

  • 63 This report is a review of selected impact studies conducted in the recent past by SFMC, NABARD, SH (...)

9What, in practice, are the objectives – explicit or implicit – of the promoters of micro-finance? The contribution by Meera Sundararajan sheds light on this matter in India. Her article provides the results of a study conducted by the Friends of Women’s World Banking (FWWB) among its partners. The explicit aim of this study was to evaluate the extent to which partners were taking the gender dimension into account in their interventions, the final objective being to evaluate their lacunae as regards gender so as to elaborate training modules adapted to and destined for staff members of the MFIs. The results of the study are somewhat disappointing. While the mission of the FWWB consists precisely in facilitating women’s access to financial services – to this purpose, the FWWB financially and technically supports MFIs addressing women as a priority –, there are ultimately very few MFIs which really have a gender policy worthy of the name. This finding is particularly valid for small microfinance organizations. Even should they follow an approach termed “credit plus”, they have difficulty applying it; they are but little aware of the discrimination that weighs upon women borrowers and have yet to develop any specific activities or services to promote women’s rights. If these organizations target female clientele, it is primarily because they consider women to be credible borrowers – this is the fourth argument mentioned above. These MFIs also assume that a better access to financial resources automatically improves the social status of their clients. However, to accuse these MFIs of negligence, of naïveté or of irresponsibility would be to exaggerate; one has too often the tendency to forget to what extent combining finance and development presupposes adequate means, human as well as financial. Small organizations often have difficulty in sustaining their programmes, and donors are not always aware of this. Such conclusions also accord with those of a recent synthesis based on different impact studies conducted in India (Singh 2003)63. Here again, the appraisal in terms of gender was rather negative. In short, the study indicated a near total absence of gender strategy, whether in terms of financial or non-financial services, of criteria of evaluation, or of personnel training. The majority of the MFIs are content to target women, assuming that the consequences in terms of the fight against gender inequalities will take place automatically. Returning to the study conducted by the FWWB, a few organizations nevertheless distinguished themselves, in particular the largest MFIs located in Andhra Pradesh. These MFIs were able to adapt their financial services according to the specific needs of women borrowers, to provide separate financial and non-financial services, and to acquire competent staff in the different domains. This article thus raises the thorny question of the professionalization of microfinance organizations, which is, according to the study, still only a possibility for a minority of MFIs. Apart from establishing training modules intended to professionalize the personnel, the authors advocate a holistic approach, above all in partnership, as the only means to mitigate the inherent weaknesses of organizations that claim to be multi-purpose.

1.2. Empowerment: an ethnocentric vision?

10As we have mentioned, empowerment is often confused or equated with women’s emancipation. In a context such as India – though this statement would indeed also be valid elsewhere –, women are far from being the only marginalized categories. The last census clearly showed that scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are still largely underprivileged in terms of wealth, education and access to basic services, in particular health services. Some MFIs or public schemes have explicitly chosen to target these categories. The text by M. Thanuja describes the example of the Velugu Project in Andhra Pradesh, part of which is intended for the Konda Reddis, a tribe of shifting cultivators. This text is an excellent illustration of the extremely subjective and relative dimension of the concept of empowerment. Based on a very fine ethnographic analysis of the economic, political and socio-cultural practices of this tribe, the author demonstrates the extent to which a priori conceptions of strategies to promote empowerment through microfinance can prove to be naïve. In fact, when one attempts to promote the empowerment of the most vulnerable, one must have an accurate understanding of who is vulnerable, and according to which criteria. Empowerment is often reconciled with the ability to make and implement choices. Here, as it happens, when considered from their own frame of reference, the Konda Reddis are not at all deprived of the power to act or to choose. On the contrary, they display a mastery of their own environment that is quite remarkable, although this is according to very specific techniques that are often quite foreign to the norms in force in the dominant world, but which are nevertheless highly efficient. Can one really claim to promote empowerment through loans to women’s groups in a context such as this where collective property continues to be predominant and organized by lineage, where an extremely precise sexual division prevails in terms of production and resource management, and where the use of money is still very limited and compartmentalized (that is to say, reserved for certain uses)? When the Velugu Project, a leading development project in Andhra Pradesh, includes tribes in the name of so-called empowerment, but is content to offer standard microfinance services without inquiring as to the specificity of the power structures of the tribes, or of their relation to property, money and finance, one can only be very sceptical regarding the potential success of the project.

1.3. The sine qua non of empowerment: the establishment of good institutions?

  • 64 On this point, see also M Gilardone et al. (2004).

11Let us return to the specific question of women. If it is necessary to better discern the specificity of their needs (and not be content to just “target” women), this is because women are subject to numerous discriminations connected with social rules and social norms. These rules and norms can be qualified as “institutions” in the sense that they are firmly established and display a very strong inertia64. The weight of institutional constraints on the extension of women’s capabilities is one of the points common to the majority of contributions in this chapterpart. The response given to this situation is the establishment of good institutions, and the strategy of the World Bank is very clear on this point.

  • 65 http://info.worldbank.org/etools/bspan/PresentationView.asp?PID=936&EID=482
  • 66 http://Inweb18.worldbank.org/ESSD/sdvext.nsf/68ByDocName/WhatIsEmpowermentFourAreasofPractice

12The World Bank has produced numerous working documents that make it possible to clarify the meaning of the term empowerment such as it is employed today. The general definition retained is the following: “Empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Central to this process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets65. The World Bank has also identified four key elements of empowerment to guide the drafting of institutional reforms66: access to information; inclusion and participation; accountability; and local organizational capacity. These terms form the core of the present discourse on development. In terms of area of applications, the World Bank provides a selection of its activities classified as follows: provision of basic services; improved local governance; improved national governance; pro-poor market development; and access to justice and legal aid. The definition of the World Bank is above all operational; such a definition allows it to establish a strategy of action, notably in terms of institutional reforms. Empowerment thus provides an articulation between the individual (human and social capital) and institutional (good governance) levels of the fight against poverty: the principle of participation and control of institutions makes it possible to more effectively combat corruption (held to be the first obstacle to development) and to better define the content and methods of the fight against poverty (through the Poverty Reduction Strategic Papers) (Prévost 2004).

  • 67 To convince oneself of this it suffices to analyse the criteria employed by the economists in their (...)

13It is observed, on the one hand, that the key terms are defined in reference to each other and, on the other hand, that the connection between the four objectives and the declared policies lacks explicitness. In the final analysis, what justifies these strategic choices is an ideology formulated as an obvious fact and a technical imperative: the ideology of good governance, the principles of which are held to be universally valid67. The terms have a limited conceptual significance insofar as, in the same way that no one is in principle opposed to the reduction of poverty, no one is opposed to good governance or to the process of empowerment.

14The contribution by S. Banerjee and S.J.S. Swamidoss provides an upstream consideration, though not by examining the institutions that would have to be promoted in order to facilitate empowerment, but rather the existing institutions which are capable of furthering or, on the contrary, of restraining the process. In other words, the question posed/raised is the following: what are the formal or informal institutional restraints constraints that weigh upon the most vulnerable and prevent them from leading a life of dignity? On the basis of data collected in Tamil Nadu, the authors put forward a few points in response. Even if one adopts an economic definition of empowerment (the choice of the authors, who consider financial independence to be the first sign of empowerment), numerous “structural” constraints, to use the authors’ term, condition the establishment of a genuine process of empowerment. These “structural” constraints are first and foremost of a socio-cultural type (traditional beliefs, matrimonial systems, caste membership, etc.). For some categories of the population, the onus of these constraints is such that it stifles any possibility of personal choice. Empowerment is thus necessarily a chaotic process that progresses and regresses; at any given time, the institutional barriers can curb the process or even bring it to a halt, which also explains the numerous client “drop outs”, from which the majority of MFIs are victims.

15The contribution of I. W. Suadnya et al. also focuses on the crucial importance of “good institutions”. The Indonesian example, upon which the authors base themselves, is very rich in lessons. First of all, in the context marked by a history of strong and extremely centralized planning, the introduction of participatory, “bottom-up” approaches based on the responsibility of the beneficiaries proves to be a veritable challenge. A fair number of microfinance programmes claiming to base themselves on participatory approaches have thus resulted in resounding failures. On the basis of working documents from the World Bank, the authors dwell at length on the necessity to support all processes of empowerment with actions simultaneously aiming at reinforcing relations of cooperation and coordination – which they describe as “social capital” –, while relying on local human resources (what they call “community-driven development”). In the absence of such measures, the result can prove to be largely negative. The power relation presumed to promote empowerment can, on the contrary, turn into a relation of domination of the patron-client type–in this regard the authors mention the term “over-empowerment”. Their conclusion agrees with the position of the World Bank in affirming that the promotion of a supportive enabling environment at the national level is essential, as much at the national as at the local level, and they thus emphasize the importance of decentralization and local governments.

2. Empowerment: a neutral process or by nature political?

2.1. Empowerment: power over oneself or over others?

  • 68 One finds here the definition of good governance as “the exercise of authority by means of traditio (...)

16Agreement on a clear and consensual definition of the term empowerment, as is seen, is hardly realistic – nor even desirable considering its subjective and relative dimension in a given socio-cultural context. It is nevertheless possible to distinguish two main tendencies, often implicit, that underlie all attempts to provide a definition: that which speaks in favour of a neutral conception of the process of empowerment, and that which, on the contrary, makes of it an intrinsically political and conflictual process. While there is a consensus tending to define empowerment first as the extension of individual capabilities, the means to achieve that end is not clear-cut. Roughly speaking, for some it is a question of enabling everyone to become aware of and exercize one’s rights, but also of being able to formulate and concretize one’s own choice by virtue of an appropriate institutional framework. For others, the process of empowerment is necessarily conflictual, insofar as it leads to a challenging and modification of power relations existing in a society. Thus, the difference resides less in the desired result or final objective – which is ultimately simply the constitution of a society of human beings with equal rights and capable of acting–than in the means of achieving it. The discussion on the definition of empowerment involves, in fact, two essential problems of modern societies that are longstanding themes in political economics: the definition of the common good and of justice (empowerment as an end in itself) and social change (empowerment as process)68. These points should be kept in mind when attempting to analyse in a more detailed manner what lies behind the concept of empowerment. To favour one or the other of these approaches obviously engenders very different results.

  • 69 See the critical analysis of this concept by M. Mohanty (2001), the analysis of the discourse of th (...)
  • 70 Activism and political demands are not always appreciated by the donors, and it is therefore better (...)

17Let us first note that the term empowerment as has generally been used for the last decade does not imply radical changes in the existing power structures or liberation from different forms of oppression; it rather implies the creation of a stable environment in which each has an equal right to participate69. Thus greater emphasis has been placed on the creation of organizations representing civil society, or participation in the existing institutions, than on calling them into question. Parallel to this, the focus on gender has given rise to an increase in international funds thus leading to conflicts among NGOs to appropriate this new financial manna, all the more so as these funds are linked to selection criteria. NGOs must therefore privilege and give evidence of their competence, of their professionalization and of their efficiency, rather than their (at times) radical activist commitments70. By the same token, the term empowerment has been widely adopted by government agencies, and India does not escape this tendency. Empowerment as mediated by an alliance between NGOs and governments is not politically neutral and can be interpreted as a means of diverting people from the demands they make of the state. For Manoranjan Mohanty, empowerment thus implies that an outside agent gives or accords power to the most underprivileged and is therefore not a real process of redistribution of power (Mohanty 2001). Given this conceptualization of empowerment, it is possible to increase the power of all without removing it from others. In other words, it is a positive-sum game. As aptly stated by Bruno Lautier, taking up the arguments of Hartmut Schneider, the concept of empowerment is hollow and does not imply assuming power over someone else because, as “the power of the poor, it is first for them to give it to themselves and they will only have power over themselves”, so “the poor must ‘take power’, but not from anyone” (Lautier 2002b: 21). Finally, one finds again in the individualist perspective of standard economics which consider and analyse individual choices within a desocialized environment, empowerment is a reinforcement of the capacity to effectively act in an environment where resources are held to be scarce and limited.

  • 71 See, for example, R Kandur and L. Squire (2002: 175-185).
  • 72 The access to basic needs such as measured by the HDI can be viewed as a narrow interpretation of t (...)
  • 73 Refer also to the analysis by L. Dumont (1966; 1977).
  • 74 On the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), see among others Chen et al. (1999); IRED (1999: 5 (...)
  • 75 Let us note that the antiestablishment dimension of an organization can be more or less pronounced; (...)

18Both senses of the term empowerment (i.e., the neutral vs. the conflictual sense) consider empowerment to be connected with the rights of citizens and with the respect of these rights and obligations (enforcement). Then, empowerment is invoked in order to allow for the economic security of underprivileged people, that is to say, in order to limit risks and uncertainty or to reduce their vulnerability71. In common use, the change in terms – from “underprivileged” people to people “without power” – can however imply a shift in meaning; the solution would no longer reside in the application of poverty alleviation strategies, but in a redistribution of power. Here, empowerment can give rise to a less placid and more conflictual interpretation than was previously the case; it goes beyond the access to basic needs72 and emphasizes access to political liberties. The sociological analysis proposed by André Beteille (1999) is very helpful for our discussion. India, where the term is extremely popular, is a textbook case of the contradiction between an egalitarian political order and a hierarchic social structure73. In substance, every individual has the same value politically – one person being equal to one voice –, while everyone is socially and culturally situated on a non-egalitarian hierarchic scale. The popularity of empowerment is linked to the recognition of the inability of political measures alone to surmount this contradiction. Economic, and above all, social inequalities rooted in traditions and cultural norms remain just as significant, despite the significant legal changes since independence. The Indian constitution was conceived as a new project of society based on the principle of equality and justice. But, for half a century, the slowness of change has generated a disillusionment regarding what is possible to obtain through political and legal actions alone. If social change cannot be brought about thorough politicians or technical experts, then the people must take over: empowerment being thus conceived of as both a means and an end in itself. Those without power (the disempowered) can either individually or collectively develop the capabilities necessary to change their way of life. Microfinance organizations that follow this second approach do not adhere to a philosophy of the charitable or philanthropist type but to an ideology of solidarity based on reciprocity; it is not a matter of acting “for” but rather “with”. Sri Padmavathy Mahila Abyudaya Sangam, a federation of women’s self-help groups in Andhra Pradesh, for example, declares itself to be an organization of women directed by women for women (World Sanitation Programme 1999). The target population of SEWA74 – which is explicitly directed at women’s access to more powers – is constituted of poor women, independent workers in the urban and rural informal sector, “the invisible”, that is, those without status other than “daughter of”, “wife of” or “sister of”, and whose work and income are very often ignored by official statistics75.

19What about the self-help groups movement? Should this be considered a neutral movement favourable to the status quo, or can we consider it to contain the seeds of a veritable opposition to the structural causes of inequality? The contribution by S. Rabindranathan offers a few points in response to this question. The author adopts a historical perspective and compares the movement of self-help groups to other, older Indian social movements that are also centred on the notion of self-help. The difference, according to the author, is fundamental. Whereas the older movements belong to genuine militant movements around collective actions, a large number of SHGs are focused only on the economic needs of women alone. The constitution of a SHG to promote women’s empowerment should thus been seen as a politically neutral undertaking and would not sustain in its midst the conflictual dimension characteristic of the earlier initiatives.

20The contribution of S. Mohanakumar and S. S. George goes still further in the critique of the current movement of SHGs. Basing themselves on the example of Kerala, the two authors attempt to show that not only do the micro-enterprises created by SHGs not improve the income and employment of women – or their economic empowerment –, but that they accentuate their exploitation, namely through an increased workload and lower wages. According to them, the manner by which public policies that support the SHG movement are considered and conceived of plays a determining role. Whereas the first initiatives of the SHGs were in line with a global approach and were favourable to a real redistribution of powers, the change of government in 2001 was reflected, according to the authors, by a radical modification of the ideology underlying the movement of SHGs, transforming the latter into a simple tool to create micro-enterprises. The analysis put forward by the authors is a good illustration of the distinction between accepting empowerment as a neutral or a conflictual process. Depending upon the meaning that is given to the term empowerment – to “gain”, “give”, “redistribute”, “take” or “share” power –, the significance and consequences, as well as the evaluation of empowerment arising from participation in a microfinance scheme will not necessarily be the same. It is seen here how important it is that an impact study examine the underlying ideology of a project. To understand the results attained necessarily requires that the motives underpinning the set-up of a project and the implicit definition entertained by the project’s initiators are made explicit beforehand.

2.2. Empowerment as an individual or collective process? Towards a transcendence of this opposition

21The preceding opposition (empowerment as a neutral or conflictual process) is in part superposed on the individual/collective opposition. In the feminist paradigm, empowerment surpasses the economic domain and the improvement in well-being, by taking on strategic gender interests. Empowerment is thus perceived “as a process of internal change (power within), augmentation of capabilities (power to) and collective mobilization of women, and when possible of men (power with) to the purpose of questioning and changing the subordination connected with gender (power over)” (Mayoux 1998: 76). These four meanings of power are taken up in numerous contributions concerned with the links between microfinance and empowerment (Deshmukh-Ranadive 2002; Mayoux 2000; Oxaal 1997; Sabharwal undated) and provide an apposite perspective for the analysis of this phenomenon.

Table 1. Empowerment and the different forms of power: definitions and implications

Forms of power

Definitions

Implications

Power over

Implies a relation of domination or of subordination that calls for active and passive resistance.

Is associated with the idea of a zero-sum game: the redistribution of power is necessarily conflictual.

Power to

Implies a power to make decisions and resolve problems, the capacity to create and to act.

Implies the reinforcement of capabilities, participation in decision-making, the development of leadership qualities.

Power with

Implies the organization of people with a common objective or a common agreement to attain collective goals.

Is associated notably with feminist movements with collective organization, social mobilization and the construction of alliances, coalitions or networks.

Power within

Implies recognition, through the analysis of experience, of the manner in which power acts in daily life and the gaining of self-confidence to change power relations.

Implies increased self-esteem and self-confidence, a form of awareness of one’s rights and capabilities.

22Following the analysis of Gita Sabharwal (undated), the different definitions of empowerment form a continuum extending from individual or personal empowerment (associated with the power to, with and within) to political empowerment (power over). The various authors can thus be situated according to their proximity to one or the other of the poles of this continuum.

  • 76 Viewed as belonging more to this category are: N. Kabeer (1995); C.O.N. Moser (1993); J. Rowlands ( (...)

23Those who support personal empowerment76 view power as a positivesum game, such that empowerment can be obtained within the existing social order without calling power structures into question. This correspondsto the right to make one’s own choices, to increased autonomy and to control over economic resources. But self-confidence and self-esteem also play an essential role in change. Empowerment signifies not only increased participation in decision-making, but above all the process through which people feel themselves to be capable of making decisions and having the right to do so (Kabeer 2001). This approach does not, however, disregard the importance of collective action in the sense that institutions which oppress women would be called into question. Public spaces of collective word and deed (Guérin 2003) are therefore essential to personal empowerment. The latter is the key to collective empowerment, even if the personal and the collective reinforce themselves mutually: “power to” and “power within” make it possible to achieve “power over”.

  • 77 Viewed as adhering to this approach are: J. Friedmann (1992) or K. Young (1993).
  • 78 “Voice” as conceptualized by A. O. Hirschman – in interaction with “exit” – is particularly useful (...)

24Political empowerment77 corresponds almost solely to the notion of “power over,” and implies a relation of domination: one cannot augment the power of a person without taking it from another. Empowerment becomes synonymous with challenging existing power structures, with the overturning of norms and, more generally, of all barriers to equality between men and women. It is essential that women become involved in the political scene at all levels, speaking out78, acting collectively and participating in local and national political institutions. Gita Sabharwal criticizes this concept for neglecting the other dimensions of the process of empowerment and for not making clear the mechanism that will enable the attainment of these goals.

  • 79 Let us note that the theoretical frameworks proposed by some authors, notably N. Folbre (1986) and (...)

25More fundamentally, it appears to us indispensable to surmount this individual/collective opposition. This opposition is just one expression among others of the eternal cleavages characteristic of the social sciences, opposing on the one hand the supporters of methodological individualism, focused on the analysis of the processes of individual choice and arbitration and, on the other hand, the supporters of methodological holism that, on the contrary, emphasizes the effects of structures and the role of institutions79. As unrefined as it might be, this cleavage nevertheless displays a remarkable persistence that is found here in the debates on the notion of empowerment.

26The contribution by J. Deshmukh-Ranadive (even should the author not take a position explicitly in relation to the different schools mentioned above), can be interpreted as attempts to overcome the individual/collective opposition by integrating the different dimensions of the process. J. Deshmukh-Ranadive proposes a theoretical framework for the analysis of the process of empowerment centred on the concept of space. She shows the interrelations among the different forms of women’s space – the place/freedom/margin to do what she intends to do – in a macro-environment and in a domestic environment. She uses this analytical framework to show that the expansion of one space – for example, the expansion of economic space is expressed by increased income – does not necessarily entail the extension of other spaces and thus the empowerment of women. It is therefore the interaction among the different spaces that is determinant. Her approach brings her closer in line with authors favouring personal empowerment insofar as she considers that “the most important condition for empowerment to take place is an expansion of the person’s mental space”. Nevertheless, she considers that it is a question of a necessary but insufficient condition: the interactions with other spaces, notably those that concern the macro-economic context, condition the effectiveness of the process of empowerment.

27We shall return in the general conclusion to the type of theoretical framework capable of surmounting the individual/collective opposition.

Notes

42 There is no direct translation of the term “empowerment” in the French or German languages, although there is in Spanish (empodamiento). The absence of an equivalent was all the more reason for researchers at the French Institute in Pondicherry to examine the meanings that are given to this concept.

43 Government of India, National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, 2001. The Indian government, moreover, ratified the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women – CEDAW – in 1993.

44 Besides, in 1989, empowerment had been elected as the “management concept of the year” (Michailova 2002: 180). For further references, refer to the bibliography at the end of this part: see, for example, J.F. Vogt and K.L. Murrell (1990); H. Itzhaky and A.S. York (2000); or C.L. Brown (2002).

45 The text by I. W. Suadnya et al. in this part reviews different definitions of empowerment borrowed from the discipline of management and administration.

46 See, for example, M. Das Gupta et al. (2000); J. Deshmukh-Ranadive (2002b); E. Hofman et al. (2001); I. Guérin (2003); and the body of gender studies; for example, consult the Review of Women Studies, Economic and Political Weekly.

47 See, for example, D. M. Burjorjee et al. (2002).

48 See a box concerning the four essential components of the paradigm of human development in which the link between empowerment and participation clearly appears: “Empowerment, Development must be by people, not only for them. People must participate fully in the decisions and processes that shape their lives” (UNDP 1995: 12).

49 The economic analysis of inequalities gave rise to a renewed interest among economists in the 1990s. See R Kanbur and N. Lustig (1999).

50 See the critical evaluation by J. Falquet (2003a; 2003b) on the used of gender indicators.

51 The three indicators retained are the share of seats held by women in the parliamentary assemblies, the share of supervisory posts, high administrative posts and technical posts assumed by women, and the estimated share of income from work of women compared to that of men.

52 Ibid. p. 1001: the most significant examples are China with 21.8% and Cuba with 27.6% (2002 data).

53 See notably M. Sekher (2001).

54 Refer to the assessment made in Chapter 3, “Evaluation of women’s progress: linking objectives and indicators”, in the report, Progress of the World’s Women, UNIFEM 2002, pp. 63-85.

55 According to a study conducted by the IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) among approximately 1,500 microfinance organizations, an average of 78% of the clientele is female, but weighting this result by the size of the organizations, the rate is not more than 45% (Lapenu and Zeller 2001).

56 See S. Cheston et al. (2002: 7-11).

57 A good example is found in the formulation of Daniel Cohen: “The exploitation of women is not only an insult to the rest of humanity that hypocritically accepts its existence. It also induces a self-sustained circle of poverty and exploitation” (Cohen 1997: 19).

58 UN, The World’s Women 1995: Trends and Statistics, New York: United Nations. Cited by Z. Oxaal and S. Baden (1997: 2).

59 Numerous empirical studies have undertaken to show that women allocate a greater part of their income for familial well-being. For a review of the literature, see Guérin (2000).

60 See the three paradigms of microfinance identified by L. Mayoux (1998b; 2000; 2003; 2004).

61 “Women’s empowerment is commonly linked to other agendas which happen to take priority. As long as women’s empowerment is conceived of as a possible byproduct of other goals, it is not convincing that the end result will not in fact be disempowering” (J. M. Brown 2002: 38).

62 See the hidden reasons for the targeting of women by the Grameen Bank (Rahman 1999: 69-71). A considerable number of works have been devoted to the informational advantages of the constitution of groups of savers and borrowers. See, for example, C. Anderson (2002); B. Armendariz de Aghion (1999); N. Bhatt (1998); J. Conning (1999); M. Ghatak and T. W. Guinnane (1999); I. Guérin (2000); J. E. Stiglitz (1990); E. Van Tassel (1999).

63 This report is a review of selected impact studies conducted in the recent past by SFMC, NABARD, SHARE, BASIX, FWWB and CARE India. See also the contribution of M. Patole and F. Sinha in the Part 3.

64 On this point, see also M Gilardone et al. (2004).

65 http://info.worldbank.org/etools/bspan/PresentationView.asp?PID=936&EID=482

66 http://Inweb18.worldbank.org/ESSD/sdvext.nsf/68ByDocName/WhatIsEmpowermentFourAreasofPractice

67 To convince oneself of this it suffices to analyse the criteria employed by the economists in their comparative studies on the economic effects of good governance. See, for example, J. Aron (2000).

68 One finds here the definition of good governance as “the exercise of authority by means of traditions and formal and informal institutions for the common good” (Banque Mondiale 2002: 152).

69 See the critical analysis of this concept by M. Mohanty (2001), the analysis of the discourse of the World Bank by B. Lautier (2002a; 2002b), and that of the discourse of international organizations at the micro-credit summit and of NGOs by J. Brown (2002: 66-90).

70 Activism and political demands are not always appreciated by the donors, and it is therefore better to demonstrate technical abilities and results with supporting figures. See J. Falquet (2003).

71 See, for example, R Kandur and L. Squire (2002: 175-185).

72 The access to basic needs such as measured by the HDI can be viewed as a narrow interpretation of the concept of capabilities as developed by A. Sen.

73 Refer also to the analysis by L. Dumont (1966; 1977).

74 On the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), see among others Chen et al. (1999); IRED (1999: 53-111); J. Brown (2002: 111-117).

75 Let us note that the antiestablishment dimension of an organization can be more or less pronounced; thus, some reproach the SEWA for not going far enough in its opposition to the existing order. It nevertheless seems to us that it really does fall within an approach aiming at the redistribution of power, even if not at all levels.

76 Viewed as belonging more to this category are: N. Kabeer (1995); C.O.N. Moser (1993); J. Rowlands (1997).

77 Viewed as adhering to this approach are: J. Friedmann (1992) or K. Young (1993).

78 “Voice” as conceptualized by A. O. Hirschman – in interaction with “exit” – is particularly useful in considering this dimension of empowerment. Regarding these concepts, see C. Ferraton and L. Frobert (2003: 158-203).

79 Let us note that the theoretical frameworks proposed by some authors, notably N. Folbre (1986) and N. Kabeer (1995), largely assume this point of view.

Auteur

Economist, PhD student at the University Lumière Lyon 2 (France). She is also associated with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Laboratoire Population-Environnement-Développement (IRD-Université de Provence) and with the French Institute of Pondicherry, where she spent one year conducting her field work.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2005

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